TITLOW BEACH, Wash. – It is a Wednesday morning in the Puget Sound. The quiet drizzle is interrupted by the whistles of passenger and cargo trains passing as they gather near the shore. They are a group of local veterans and wounded warriors, united in their shared military service and their love for scuba diving.
Michael Biggs is one of the first to arrive. He is an instructor for Scuba Warriors; a series of open water and advanced scuba classes available to wounded warriors across services and special operation forces that have deployed at least once. It is offered at no cost through Heartbeat Serving Wounded Warriors.
He is optimistic that the visibility will be good at this location. He talks currents and shows off pictures of the extremely varied wildlife waiting beneath the water. Last year he participated in 250 dives. As much as he loves scuba, helping other service members is just as important to him because he was where they are, injured, uncertain of where his future lie. He was once just a student of the program, a program which helped to save his life.
Biggs served in the Army as an infantryman. He deployed three times. During his final deployment, he suffered injuries which would end his career. It took more than two years for him to transition through the Warrior Transition Battalion at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. He credits both the WTB and Heartbeat for introducing him to adaptive sports opportunities.
“I went through a phase in my recovery where I was almost suicidal. I would go to my appointments, go back to my room and just lay there. I was pretty much useless,” said Biggs. “I got into the program for therapy, and I found such a love for it. The water here is so beautiful. You can go out a million times and see something different every time you are out there. There is so much life out there; there is so much to see.”
Biggs said that scuba was a turning point for him. He continued to take classes, volunteered with the program and eventually became an instructor. He feels that he is uniquely qualified to work with the wounded warriors because he is one himself and the change he saw in himself, is something he now sees in the service members he works with.
“I have had warriors come through the course and that first day in class, they are just silent, they wouldn’t speak at all, but the first time I got them in the water, all of the sudden I saw smiles on their faces,” said Biggs. “All of the sudden they are happy as [heck], all they want to do is participate. These guys want to play. Once they get out there and start participating, it’s a totally different personality. They are alive again.”
He said scuba offers physical and behavioral health benefits to the wounded warriors. It is exercise, a break from the monotony of treatment and a method to help them rebuild trust. Similar to combat, diving is done in buddy teams. You rely on the person next to you to keep you safe.
For Spc. Michael Demarco, an Alexandria, La., native, scuba has helped him work through his pain and regain control. The infantryman was injured in multiple improvised explosive device explosions in Afghanistan.
“I like that you have to be mindful. I have a tendency to not be mindful of things and with the stresses of daily life, it’s easy to get angry over nothing,” said Demarco. “Scuba teaches you to be very mindful because when you are under the water you have to think about your breathing and think about how your muscles feel. You are totally thinking about how you are feeling.”
Demarco came to the program after a recommendation from his occupational therapist and his own friends at the WTB who had already participated in it. He admitted that he was afraid during the first couple of dives; however, the instructors were very supportive of him and willing to do whatever was necessary to ensure his comfort and with practice, he was able to overcome his initial fears.
“Scuba is just like anything else. You do it a couple times and you get comfortable with it. It’s just like driving the car or mowing the lawn. When you were a kid, you mowed the lawn for the first time or drove the car for the first time and you were scared to death. And then you do it like four times and it’s not that bad anymore. You learn to look further ahead and you drive the car straighter,” said Demarco.
He recommended that other wounded warriors find a hobby, be it scuba or something else. The first step is always the hardest he said, opening yourself up to something new.
Biggs and the other instructors, volunteers and service members go for a thirty minute dive. They learn how to handle the current. One of the wounded warriors finds a seashell for his girlfriend. Each surfaces with a smile, a little lighter in spirit than they had been before entering the water.
“It is so much fun. Such a blast,” he said.
The sun even comes out for them as they dry off.